REVIEW: A Brilliant Void edited by Jack Fennell

Review of Jack Fennell, ed., A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction (Tramp Press, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

A while back I had time to kill in Belfast airport so I ended up in WH Smith’s hoping to find the newest Rivers of London book. I failed at that, but what I did find was a book that touted itself as being “a selection of classic Irish science fiction”. Classic science fiction, you say? Some people might think that’s an oxymoron, that SF is an inherently modern genre. In his introduction to the collection, “The Green Lacuna”, the editor Jack Fennell addresses precisely the issue of genre, as well as whether it makes sense to speak of a specifically Irish tradition in SF.

Fennell kicks off his introduction with a brief rehearsal of the fantastical elements that can be found in the history of Irish storytelling, arguing that many of the recurring tropes in medieval Irish mythology and literature are the same tropes that one finds in contemporary science fiction — from Balor of the Evil Eye, villain of the 11th C Book of Invasions who “was basically a mutant with laser-vision” (p. vii) to stories in the “Christian fantasy-voyage” genre with encounters with creatures that should “be read as forerunners of modern sci-fi aliens and mutants” (p. viii). Now, these examples might seem a bit far stretched — more fantasy than sci fi as there isn’t any “science” that is being invoked to underpin or explain the fantastical elements of these medieval myths. But they are part of a continuous tradition that directly fed into modern sci fi, mediated by, among other things, the classic Gothic literature of the 19th century, of which “Ireland was home to one of the most celebrated varieties” (p. viii), Ascendancy Gothic, feature “paradigm-shifting encounters with the other” (p. viii). This strand of gothic literature, Fennell argues, combined with the scientific romances of Verne, Wells, and others to become the direct parents of pulp SF in the early 20th century. A second specifically Irish influence on the development of modern SF, Fennell argues, is the Irish “desire to see the future” (p. xi), which is manifest in the central role that prophecy has always played in Irish literary tradition, and in particular in the aisling or ‘dream vision’ poetry.

Despite this, Irish science fiction has often been relegated to the “marginalia” (p. x) of Irish literature, Fennell argues. This anthology is an attempt to right this, and to bring to light stories and authors that have been sidelined. Reading classic science fiction not only allows us to “look at the commonplace from a hypothetical remove” (p. ix), it allows us a glimpse into what people of the past thought their future would, or could, be like.

This focus on the future is the red thread that ties all the stories together, even more than the cultural background of the authors. The stories in the anthology cover the period 1837-1960, and are both standalone stories and excerpts from larger works. I was super pleased to see that more than half of the authors included were women (8 women, 6 men). (Wait, you didn’t know there were female SF writers before the 1960s? Now you know!) As is usual, we will review each story individually and link the reviews back to this post when they are posted:

There are so many things to love about this collection — Fennell’s lucid and informative introduction, the variety of the stories, the coherence of the whole. I highly recommend it for classic SF lovers, people with an interest in Irish literature, people who want to read more early SF by women, or those who just want to curl up with a good story. This collection has it all.

REVIEW: “Transcripts of Tapes Found Near The Depot, 06-45” by Laura Duerr

Review of Laura Duerr, “Transcripts of Tapes Found Near The Depot, 06-45”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

One often thinks of “post-apocalyptic fiction” as involving some sort of discrete apocalypse, a single event that separates history into “before” and “after”. Nuclear war, or an asteroid hitting the earth, or something like that. It’s easy to read stories like that as fiction, because people are bad at calculating the realistic odds of events like that actually happening.

But apocalypses can also be gradual things, things where there is no clear starting point, no clear moment where we can say “this is where things went wrong”. Global warming is one of those insidious apocalypses, and the likelihood is high that we’ve probably already past the moment where things first went wrong.

Which makes stories like Duerr’s — clearly in the post-apocalyptic genre, but where the apocalypse is a gradual, continuous event rather than a discrete one — hard to read, because they are a bit too much like truth and a bit too little like fiction. These tape transcripts are from our near future, and describe a world where the rivers have dried up, so there is no water left to power the generators, which means no power, which means no internet, but no one wants to go onto the internet anyway, because all the woe and horror drown out any useful information. They’re a mirror of a potential future, at least, and a scary future it is.

REVIEW: “The Curse of Apollo” by Diana Hurlburt

Review of Diana Hurlburt, “The Curse of Apollo”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is a story of a story, set in ancient Greece where a story teller recites the tales for each season — counting tales “a more pleasant way of counting the seasons than taxes”. This particular story that the story teller tells us of is of two horses born to the same mare six weeks apart. Is this a miracle of nature? Is it divine intervention? Are the horses gods? Or silly young foals to be sacrificed to the gods? No one knew what to do, except one person, and he was not consulted: And so that is how the titular curse came about. No one thought to ask one of the most important twin gods what he thought, and Apollo felt slighted…

The best myths are ones where you aren’t entirely sure what is real and what is not. This story feels like it could’ve come straight out of the Homeric tradition of classical Greek mythology, though it’s not a myth that I recognise — whether this is because of a fault in myself or because the story is truly new, I do not know. Either way, I enjoyed it.

REVIEW: “Butterflies” by Elizabeth Hinckley

Review of Elizabeth Hinckley, “Butterflies”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Reading this story was like sitting down to tea with someone you’ve never met but with whom you have mutual friends, friends who at one point told the two of you “you would like each other. you should meet up sometime.” So you do, and then you hear the other person’s story and can’t help but be fascinated (and to appreciate having friends who know you so well that they can recommend knew friends to you).

Let’s pretend, dear reader, that I am the mutual friend between you and this wonderful little post-apocalyptic story, and this is me telling you “why don’t you brew a cup of tea and settle down with this story? I think you’d like each other.”

REVIEW: “Wise Woman” by Regina Higgins

Review of Regina Higgins, “Wise Woman”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This wasn’t meant to be a horror story (I don’t think), but there are few things that I can imagine that are scarier than false accusations. When Charlotte finds out from her aunt Sylvia that Mildred, whom Charlotte has been going to all her life, has been accused, Charlotte’s first response is to ask what proof there is being the accusations. Sylvia’s response is chilling:

“Oh, there’s no proof. Not yet. She’s just been accused.”

Behind those words is the chilling truth, that proof doesn’t matter. When a woman is accused, proof isn’t needed. When a woman accuses, proof is required.

It is fear that drives Charlotte to ask Mildred to read the cards: The Empress, the Emperor, the broken tower, symbol of destruction. But while Charlotte fears destruction as a dangerous, harmful thing, Mildred embraces hope: Hope that what is to come is the shattering of oppressive power structures. Mildred’s hope is so calm and steadfast, it is difficult not to believe in it. Hope in the face of oppression is always something worth reading about.

REVIEW: “Joinery” by Jennifer Lyn Parsons

Review of Jennifer Lyn Parsons, “Joinery”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This entire issue of Luna Station Quarterly is filled with strong, confident, older women, which has made the entire collection of stories a joy to read. Regine, in Parsons’ “Joinery”, is no exception. I loved the care and dedication with which she approached not only her woodworking but also the other people who lived on the same technologically-backward planet, Diot. When an unexpected stranger arrived in her isolated village, Regine is wary but not suspicious. Grannie Hella knows more than she lets on, and lets on that she knows too much. She also brings with her more than Regine could ever imagine.

I love when a story sucks me into all its layers, and hints at all number of layers that can’t be reached in the course of a single short story but which are clearly there, touched on here and there. Who are the Bright Ones? What is their curse, and can it ever be broken? Why does Grannie Hella come to Regine? All these questions swirl around — some are answered, others, painfully, are not — and the end result is a story that’s both bittersweet and hopeful.

REVIEW: “A Handful of Mud” by Artyv K

Review of Artyv K, “A Handful of Mud”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

What can you do with a handful of mud? That’s what Dana and her sister Mtra ask their mipaati, their grandmother, when she brings home not food, not chocolate, but a handful of mud. Mipaati is a hoarder, and at first her granddaughters think this is just another part of her irrational behavior. But mipaati has a plan for her mud, one that Dana thinks cannot possibly work: She is going to grow food in it.

See, Dana, Mtra, and mipaati all live underground; it’s not entirely clear why, but hints are dropped — capitalism, poisoned soil in the land above, a land destroyed by industrialist greed. But it’s not just that it’s hard to grow plants underground that makes Dana think this cannot possibly work; it’s all the restrictions against hazardous, toxic materials that govern their underground compound. If anyone finds out what mipaati is doing, they are all in trouble…